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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers
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Sander Alberink en Linus Torvalds
Een tijdje geleden hebben we een interview (via E-mail, dat de lezer niet denkt dat wij van zijn geld naar allerlei exotische landen reizen) gehouden met Linus Torvalds. Zoals jullie misschien wel weten is hij de maker van het Linux besturingssysteem, een vrij verkrijgbare Unix. Aangezien jullie op school nog veel met Unix in het algemeen en met Linux in het bijzonder in aanraking zullen komen, leek het ons leuk om eens de man achter de naam Torvalds te leren kennen. Hierbij het verslag...
1. Could you introduce yourself to the readers (i.e Who is Linus Torvalds)?
Hi readers..I'm, uhmm, ehh.. Damn. What should I say? I'm a teacher (and student) at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and I'm the principal author of Linux. Note that that doesn't mean that I've written all of it, or even most of it, but I've written the basic thing, and kind of got it all started..
2. When did all of this start? When did you start writing Linux?
It started in the spring of -91. I bought myself a PC in early 1991, and I was pretty happy with the hardware side of the machine, but I was unhappy with the software side, notably the operating system (ie DOS). I had been using UNIX for a few months at the university, and I wanted to have that kind of functionality at home too.
3. What was the reason you started writing Linux?
Well, as I said, I wanted the functinality at home, and DOS (and windows) didn't offer that. I started out by trying a small UNIX clone called Minix, and I was able to get some of the things I wanted with that, but on the other hand it also left me wanting the _full_ unix functionality, and the omissions in Minix (and the performance problems of minix) left me wanting something better. However, the so-called "real unix" cost a lot, and wasn't easy to find even if I had had the money (which I definitely did not). A reasonably UNIX setup with development tools etc was several thousand US dollars, and as I was a poor student who had just used all his money to buy the machine in the first place, that really wasn't an option... However, as I knew computers, I just started tinkering with it all myself, and the rest is history..
4. What do you consider a normal day (e.g. what takes your time, normally: school, Linux, spare time)
Linux takes up my "working hours" - even just reading email takes a minimum of two hours a day, and to actually react to that email and do development fills up the rest of the day quite nicely indeed, thank you very much.. However, I do take time off for hobbies etc, and I can essentially do linux at my work at the university (they know I do Linux development, and they allow for that fact).
5. In an old interview I read that you were about 3 years away of your graduation (that was in 1994). Is it still the same figure, or has it gone better (or worse :-)
Well, I actually got my BSc this spring, and I hope to get my masters by the end of the year if all goes well (the "all goes well" is not so much a matter of me having problems studying, as just the fact that I have to force myself to find the time for it..) So I'm firmly on track to graduate some day..
6. You first started out writing all of the code yourself. I suppose that nowadays this has shifted alot, due to the developing via the Internet. How much of the code that is produced is code written by yourself, in these days?
Not that much. Most of the time is spent doing integration and generally just administrating the whole thing, and compared to that I do actual development a lot less than I used to.On the other hand, I still keep the "central core" of the system under my personal control.
7. In an very early interview you had, you mention that you considered Linux non-portable. I also read a more recent interview, about a year ago, you say that you wouldn't think about portability. Having all the different ports that are being worked on nowadays, what is you opinion on this now?
Well, I've changed my mind, obviously.. Portability didn't use to be a very large concern, but as the x86 platform has matured, and more and more people started asking about other platforms, my priorities have changed. These days portability issues are rather important, and Linux now is pretty supported on a number of plat forms, including Intel x86, DEC alpha, Sun Sparc, Motorola 68k etc. Another thing that I initially didn't count on was the multiprocessor version, but now that there are cheap multi-CPU machines available that too has changed,and Linux works on those kinds of machines too. One thing that has been nice about the whole project is that I've never been bored: there has always been something new to work on, some new challenge to rise up to..
8. What is your view on software development via the Internet? Does it speed up development or increases the quality of the software?
It's a two-edged sword. On the one hand it helps development tremendously, with people all over the world being able to just jump in and get their hands dirty coding on the system and fixing bugs and addign new features. On the other hand, some of those people may have hands that are just a bit_too_ dirty, if you see what I mean. So it needs some supervision and somebody to organize the whole thing. That's been what my role has become to some degree, obviously.
9. Do you think that Linux has become (or should become) a marketforce?
Well, sure. According to some magazine (InfoWorld?), Linux already has about 10% of the web server market. That's market force for you. The market has room for multiple OS's, though - I don't think that Linux willbe the "one and only" true OS out there. The PC market has been pretty skewed by the dominance of MicroSoft, which is strange (very few markets have that kind of monopoly), and maybe Linux will be one of the emerging forces in that marketplace (and we obviously aren't limiting ourselves to the PC, either).
10. In view of the previous question, what would be typical applications where Linux could be used?
Networking is one area that UNIX has been traditionally good at, and Linux works fine on the internet as both a service provider and a client. Another area that Linux has been doing well in is the academic world: it's often a very price-conscious market, and yet it needs more capabilities than you'll get from DOS/Windows, for example. In academia, the added advantage of having source availability is also important in some cases, as students and researchers need the possibility of changing the system according to their needs (testing new algorithms etc). A third area would be a kind of embedded market: places where you don't care_what_ OS the machine runs, because it's essentially a black box that does some specific thing. In that kind of market the lack of licensing fees is important, as is the possibility to tailor the system to your needs. Finally, any kind of technical market, where you need a robust system for programming or math, Linux is a good choice..
11. What is your view on the future of Linux? What can we expect in future versions?
No promises.. The up-coming 2.0 release will have the SMP and multi-architecture stuff in it, along with various performance improvements to the networking and other areas. I'm having an open mind when it comes to the future: that leaves me free to react to new circumstances without any preconceptions.
12. Is it true that Bill Gates send you the code of Windows 95 with a Post-It label on in, saying "Help me save my ass!"?
Nope. That's definitely a joke..
13. If you had a chance to do it all over, would you do things differently (or even don't do it at all)?
It has turned out so well that I can't say that I'd change anything. If I knew back when I started what I know now, I'd probably never have started the whole thing (I didn't have a _clue_ about how many problems there could be), but on the other hand I'm happy I didn't know about it. I've had a lot of fun, and I intent to continue to do that..
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